Revisiting the Gunsmoke of Red Dead Redemption

In a nice surprise from Microsoft and Rockstar earlier this week, the two companies announced earlier this week that the best old American West simulation, Red Dead Redemption, launched today on the Xbox One through the console's backwards compatibility program. This is welcome news after fans of the game made it the most requested game released during the last console generation to return to modern consoles.

Make no mistake, Red Dead Redemption is one of the finest games Rockstar ever released. The only other game in its catalog that so accurately captures the feel of an era is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Redemption maintains the signature Rockstar satirical verve players have come to expect from their games, while also capturing the morality, myth, and problems of the early frontier America history. The game's many characters and places depict over-the-top caricatures of gold-rush era ideals and geography, including a snake oil salesman who actually believes in his own crappy tonic, a racist Yale academic who is too high on cocaine to realize his hypocrisy, and an entire town called Thieves' Landing that for some reason resembles the Deep South. The game's mechanics and story also say something larger about the class of bravado many second amendment purists stick to. An appropriate choice, too, given the current political climate around guns and American attitudes towards them shifting, in light of more recent gun violence. One of Redemption's central messages is that guns don't make the world a safer place, but rather they make it a more dangerous one.

The game's protagonist, John Marston, is a complicated figure, as the best leading characters of Western films tend to be. A former outlaw turned family rancher, Marston's past meets his present when federal authorities tell him he has to help them hunt his former fellow gang members or risk losing his new life and his family. Marston reluctantly agrees to go back to his old "savage" outlaw life in order to preserve his new civility. What follows is an open world quest on horseback to take down criminals across two fictitious US counties and a Mexican state, to kickstart a Mexican revolution, and to solve the problems of frontier America against the changing times. 

Redemption is a tableau of American progress and its winners and losers, set against the backdrop of the Rio Grande. Modern cities are replacing the wooly wilderness. The government is cracking down on lawless lifestyles. Automatic weapons are replacing revolvers. Men like Marston are forced to evolve or be replaced, a central theme drilled into the player when, after Marston corners the last member of his old gang, warns him the Bureau of Investigation will "just find another monster" to justify their own authority over people.

Like Rockstar's more popular Grand Theft Auto games, Redemption has a wanted system and most of its story and side missions revolve around some kind of climactic gunfight. The wanted system in Redemption plays out in how civilians react to him. Characters run scared of Marston and close off their services to him for being a scoundrel (i.e. shooting up town, committing crimes) or if they praise him and grant store discounts for being "honorable" (i.e. not killing innocents, assisting local police). This differs a lot from Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series, in which breaking the law only causes cops to become more militant and aggressive in their pursuit of the player. Similarly, the Grand Theft Auto games have never been known for their great gunplay, but rather, their ability to unleash wanton destruction quickly and effectively. In Redemption, shooting a gun is just as easy, but using it to take down a whole group of bandits is difficult. Marston does not have a lot of health to start with, aiming is limited to a tiny reticle, bullets are scarce, and only midway through the campaign does Marston's "Dead Eye" slowdown-to-shoot ability becomes useful.

The game's limitations on shooting, however, turn out to be what makes Redemption's firefights so compelling and chilling. Shooting a revolver feels powerful and it's treated with the exact amount of fear one skilled cowboy commands upon the world. It's deliberate violence, slowed down to great effect to show how brutal pumping bullets into human beings actually is. In fact, Marston himself lays down his arms when he succeeds in his mission and returns to the safety of his family, only to be gunned down by the same government hands who pushed him into picking those guns back up in the first place. Though the developers designed 30 hours worth of story romanticizing the Wild West and its violence, the overall narrative is that people who use guns to solve life problems will eventually have guns solve the problem of life itself. The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is more good guys with guns, unless those guys with guns are not so good after all. The escalation of armed conflict in Redemption and Marston's death punctuate the game's truth about guns.

In spite of this commentary, Red Dead Redemption also has one of the most satisfying takes on the revenge fantasy. It's a clever spin on the "good guys always win" trope. Marston's final few missions depict him trying to wrestle with home life, slowing down the story's pace by showing his son Jack how to be a man and providing for the family. Then, after a government agent kills Marston, the game shifts your perspective into Jack, advancing time three years later to hunt down the agent responsible for his father's death. The last hour or so of Redemption's gameplay builds to a climactic duel between Jack and the agent. Then the game splashes the best late title card to punctuate a video game I've ever seen. It's an effective ending, concluding that the John Marston legacy redeemed itself despite how ambiguous of a "hero" he turned out to be.

It is also worth mentioning the game's multiplayer often devolves into chaotic Wild West shootouts. The single player campaign's wanted system is applied haphazardly to bounties in multiplayer. The most deadly players with the highest bounties get big targets on their back, leading to comically bad shootouts in one of the late game towns that allowed players to camp and wait for easy prey. Although this is probably closer to what it was like to be a wanted outlaw in those times, playing the multiplayer wasn't much fun.

Still, Red Dead Redemption's single-player arc serves as a prescient warning against America's long and storied fascination with guns and ammo-toting cowboys, one that we should all heed in our modern era. Guns don't set good guys apart from bad guys. They are an equally destructive force for both their victims and their users. If only John Marston had learned that lesson sooner.